If you’re looking for an effortless domestic getaway with international appeal, this southernmost U.S. island chain holds the keys.
Who couldn’t use a little escape these days? Few destinations suit the current moment better than the Florida Keys. Easy to get to by road or air, this uniquely American island paradise offers 365 days of practically perfect subtropical weather, a vast array of outdoor activities on land and water, and a wealth of authentic experiences across five distinct districts—no passport required.
The northernmost island in the Keys, Key Largo may look and feel like the Caribbean, but it’s only about an hour’s drive from South Florida’s two major airports. You might know its name from the classic Humphrey Bogart film, or you may know its reputation as the Diving Capital of the World. Either way, it’s a fitting place to take the plunge into the Keys.
With the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. just off its eastern shores, Key Largo was destined to adopt diving as a way of life. Visitors can become scuba certified in only three days, learning with some of the world’s best instructors—then practice their skills in the brilliant undersea world at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the country’s first underwater nature preserve. More advanced divers will want to explore the wreck of the Spiegel Grove, a U.S. Navy ship that was intentionally scuttled in 2002 to create a new reef system. At 510 feet, it’s larger than any natural reef structure in the Keys and a spectacular introduction to the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail. But if you prefer your adventures on land—or in shallower waters—take heart: Key Largo is also flanked by Everglades National Park, a natural wonderland for hikers, birders, kayakers, and eco-tourists of all stripes.
Islamorada translated from Spanish as “purple isle,” has yet another name among sport fishing enthusiasts: heaven. Its unique location, between the “backcountry” of the Florida Bay and the “front side” of the Atlantic Ocean, provides an unrivaled diversity of fishing opportunities. Seasonal visiting species like sailfish, marlin, and tuna are brought in by the Gulf Stream; tarpon and bonefish are among the treasures to be found in the backcountry, with catch-and-release and other responsible practices fully observed. If you’re an angling newbie or just not sure where to start, you’ll find a host of charters available, with tournament-grade captains and experienced guides ready to show you the way.
Take your catch to any number of local restaurants, like Islamorada Fish Company, where they will be happy to cook it to perfection. Or if you’ve spent the day kiteboarding, paddleboarding, or kayaking, just take your appetite. Grab a seat at a dockside eatery or on an outdoor patio at sunset. You’ll want to sample all of the local delicacies—especially the succulent stone crabs, in season from mid-October through mid-May. (Key lime pie is always in season.)
Midway through the Keys and sandwiched between the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, Marathon is a boater’s paradise and a restless family’s dream. Whether you’re cruising in on your own vessel or renting one while you’re here, this is one of the Keys’ most boat-friendly destinations, with a jewel of a marina and a rich seafaring history.
By water or via the historic Seven Mile Bridge, make your way to Pigeon Key, the tiny island that served as home for workers building the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad in the early 20th century; it’s a great spot for picnics, historical tours, and easy snorkeling. Families can also immerse themselves in Marathon’s world-class marine education programs, whether by enjoying close encounters with loggerheads, hawksbills, and their brethren at the Turtle Hospital—the world’s first licensed veterinary center for endangered sea turtles—or swimming and playing with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center. Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters is unlike any other aquarium experience, with opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with the aquatic world through touch tanks, feeding experiences, and snorkeling encounters designed to inspire the next generation of marine conservationists.
Big Pine Key & Florida’s Lower Keys are a string of small islands best known for their abundance of natural wonders, including two national wildlife refuges and a national marine sanctuary. The names of these idyllic keys hint at their quirky, irresistible appeal: Big Pine, Little Duck, Sunshine, Summerland, Sugarloaf—and the list goes on. But charming names are only the beginning. The “Natural Keys” will capture your heart and take your breath away with adventures in the wild, both on land and on (or under) the water.
One of the most remarkable creatures you’ll encounter here is the Key deer, a diminutive subspecies of whitetail found nowhere else on earth. These carefully protected beauties roam free throughout Lower Keys, but especially on Big Pine—home to the National Key Deer Refuge, where you can spot them on guided walks, bike rides, and kayak excursions. Just east of Big Pine Key lies Bahia Honda State Park, one of the most beloved beach destinations in the country. The park encompasses more than 500 pristine acres, including an offshore island, and snorkelers can explore the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, one of the most glorious reefs in the Keys. Just before you hit Key West, pay a visit to Stock Island, an up-and-coming resort destination with a colorful history as the hub of the Keys’ shrimping industry and a vibrant community of young artists.
Celebrated for its flamboyant personality and anything-goes spirit, Key West also has a softer side. Those who come for the party scene and colorful characters won’t be disappointed—but history buffs, nature lovers, and sporty types should prepare to fall in love, too. This island has captured the imaginations of countless artists and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Winslow Homer. And if it seems unlikely that the same small patch of land could provide inspiration for “Margaritaville” balladeer Jimmy Buffett and poet laureate Robert Frost, just wait. Once you get to know Key West, it won’t seem surprising at all.
In addition to literary landmarks like the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West’s historical sites include Harry S. Truman’s Little White House, where the 33rd President took respite during the winter months. Who could blame him, when the sea beckons from every direction, and water and air temperatures are nothing short of perfect? Do what Truman would do: hop a charter for some of the best sportfishing you’ll find anywhere. Leisurely cruising is always an option, too, whether on a catamaran charter or paddling a kayak along one of the island’s peaceful waterways. And when you’ve worked up an appetite, take your pick from a feast of outdoor dining venues, from spacious porches to candlelit seaside lawns.
Dedicate a day—or more—to shopping; from antiques to handcrafted jewelry, clothing, and works of art, Key West is brimming with one-of-a-kind boutiques reflecting its irrepressible personality. Now more than ever, it feels great to support small local businesses, and you’ll find no shortage of eclectic mom-and-pop stores and enterprises throughout the Florida Keys & Key West. From signature, Cuban coffee shops to family-run eco-tours to distinctive home goods and so much more, shopping mom-and-pop in the Keys is a lot like exploring the reefs and nature preserves: you get to discover all sorts of treasures while doing your part to support the ecosystem.
Think of the Florida Keys as the world-class destination that happens to be right in your own backyard—with all of the superb accommodations you would expect to find there. From family-run properties to luxurious resort hotels and rentals, all are observing stringent cleanliness protocols to ensure travelers’ health and safety during this time of Covid-19. Always a pioneer in the realm of sustainability, the Keys continue to lead in another area of responsible tourism: social distancing and masks are respectfully enforced throughout the destination. And dining establishments throughout the region—now more than ever—offer outdoor seating, waterfront dining, and convenient takeout options.